When Vivians mother was sick, shed stayed in the hospital for months at a time, and Vivian and her father learned how to get along in the house without her. Vivian cooked breakfast and dinner, and her father did the grocery shopping on his way home from the jewelry store. After dinner he would wash the dishes and Vivian would clean the table and the counters. They saw her mother every evening during visiting hours. Sometimes if her mother were very sick, Vivian wasnt allowed in the room, and she would sit in the waiting area until her father came out. Hed always say something cheerful, like The doctor feels confident, or She had a good day, and Vivian would respond in kind, knowing he needed her to play along. Once back home, her father would turn on the television. He kept it on all night to avoid the new silence in the house.
One day Vivian decided that instead of going straight home from school she would take the bus to the mall and meet up with her father there. Maybe they could go out for dinner on their way to the hospital. After walking a block from the bus stop, she entered the dead weather of the mall. It was almost Easter, and a person dressed as a bunny hopped down the corridors, promoting a candy store by handing out chocolate eggs to children. Vivian rode the escalator to the second floor where her fathers store was. Through the glass storefront, she saw her father come out from behind the counter to fasten a womans necklace. The womans neck was long and pale, and her dark hair was drawn to the side and over one shoulder to make way for the jewelry. When Vivians father was finished with the clasp, he took the womans hair and spread it carefully along her back, as if he were smoothing down a wrinkled dress. He rested his hands on the womans shoulders while she admired herself in a handheld mirror. Vivians throat went dry. She left the mall and took the bus home. She never asked her father about what she had seen. She knew that if she did, her life would split open and she would slip through the crack.
In a few months, Vivians mothers recovery was certain, and she came home. She was weak for a time, resting in bed most of the day, but little by little she began to take up her household chores again, cooking and cleaning, although she never went back to work. One night, when Vivian and her parents were seated at the table about to eat their dinner, her father started crying. Vivian had never seen her father cry and it frightened her. He was just so happy, he said, shaking his head at the folly of his emotion. Vivians mother sat in her chair and smiled shyly, like a girl watching a boy approach across a dance floor and realizing that he has singled her out from all the girls around her.
A knock on her door made Vivian realize that she had almost been asleep. The door opened a crack and Toby stood silhouetted against the light of the outer room.
Shelly just called, he said. Shes not coming back tonight.
Oh, Vivian said, sleepily, not quite understanding. But then she found herself moving over in bed and lifting the covers as an invitation. Toby stepped into the room, took off his clothes, and slid in beside her. His skin was warm, and when he moved on top of her Vivian felt the thin tautness of his body. She put her arms around his narrow shoulders as if he were a log floating in a river on which she could rest to catch her breath.
Just for now, he whispered into her neck as he began to move faster on top of her. He was boyish in the way he announced his orgasm, and she felt protective of him as he rested, spent, in her arms. She wondered if she cared for him, if it mattered to her that tomorrow he would likely be gone for good, Shelly having obviously had enough of him. Was it possible to care and not to care at the very same moment, the way it was possible to be a husband and not, a parent and not?
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